More than sixteen years after America’s war in Afghanistan began, our soldiers there this season found only a card from Washington reading ‘Best Wishes for a Happy Holiday’ under the tree again this year
By Mark Cromer
“Never has so much military, economic and diplomatic power been used so ineffectively as in Vietnam. If after all of this time and all of this sacrifice and all of this support there is still no end in sight, then I say the time has come for the American people to turn to new leadership, not tied to the policies and the mistakes of the past. I pledge to you we shall have an honorable end to the war in Vietnam.”
— Richard Nixon, 1968, in a campaign commercial
It began officially in October 2001 as Operation Enduring Freedom.
This November, Newsweek called it ‘The Forever War.’
And in that Twitter hashtag-friendly headline, the once mighty weekly news magazine that long ago cratered into irrelevance and was sold off by The Washington Post literally for a dollar in a journalistic charity purchase by Sid Harman before finally being buried (shortly after Harman was) but then resurrected as a slicker, leaner and meaner mag that probably finds most of its readers today at Hudson News in airports around the country, Newsweek demonstrated with simplistic clarity that authentic news reporting even at its most minimalistic is still around.
For Afghanistan is America’s #ForeverWar.
Not many Americans seemed to notice even that low-cognition friendly advisory, mind you, and fewer still seemed to care.
But for the 15,000-plus American combat soldiers—in the spirit of the season let’s dispense if only for a moment with the fecal-grade euphemisms of ‘advisors’ and ‘trainers’ and ‘chaperones’—still planted deep in the bleak and bloody hellhole of Afghanistan, the war indeed drags on eternally.
There is no rational or achievable or even comprehendible objective that’s to be accomplished by our troops in Afghanistan today that is genuinely related to the initial objectives they were tasked with in the twilight of 2001. Our young men and women bearing arms for the United States of America find themselves hunkered down in major airbases and across far-flung firebases and outposts for nothing more than Washington’s imperial prerogative to have them there as a force projection launch pad into South and Central Asia—placeholders for use at a later date as needed.
This couldn’t have been made more clear when Vice President Mike Pence jetted into the massive Bagram Airbase on an unmarked C-17 transport the night before Christmas Eve to then be choppered into Kabul where he met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at his palace in the capital. As The New York Times reported over the weekend, Pence’s arrival was meant in no small measure to prop up Ghani’s regime that is riven with corruption and ineptitude and is powerless throughout much of the ‘country’—to use that geopolitical term generously. The Times made a passing note of the central government’s impotence by reporting that Ghani last week had dismissed Atta Muhammed Noor, a provincial governor in the north of Afghanistan, a shuffle of players that didn’t quite go off so seamlessly. Upon being informed that he had been fired by the central government in Kabul, Noor sent word back that he didn’t accept his termination of employment, unless he could bestow the governorship of the province over to his handpicked successor. Otherwise Kabul could come and try to take it.
If you believe Washington’s mission statement that’s been tweaked over three presidential administrations, this is what our troops are fighting and dying for, this is freedom and democracy at work in Afghanistan. These are the ‘good guys.’
The bad guys—most prominently the Taliban, but now also ISIS and a bevy of other jihadist groups—hold sway over as much if not more of the tribal confederation fashioned into a pseudo-state’s geography than they did since the high watermark of the American invasion. Sixteen years down a road paved with the bodies of more than 2,250 American soldiers killed and more than 20,000 wounded, many horrifically so, and the bill of goods delivered to the American people for this blood, heartache and trillions in treasure is a guy named Ghani in Kabul who can’t even cashier a bureaucratic subordinate named Noor in the Balkh Province without Noor demanding to pick his replacement, who’s probably his cousin that will serve as a stand-in for Noor.
Welcome to Operation Enduring Insanity.
If this all rings a slightly distant bell then you’re probably over 50 and can hear something that echoes with the name of Ngo Dinh Diem and a former pre-fab state called the Republic of Vietnam, a place that’s more commonly remembered among Americans of a certain age simply as South Vietnam. As a few of us may recall, Diem was Washington’s corrupt and ineffective branch manager in Saigon until the Kennedy administration finally decided he had to be let go in November of 1963 (a notice of termination that was delivered via bullet and bayonet) and by 1965 LBJ kicked the war into high gear, eventually pouring a half-million men into the roiling, bifurcated country and unleashing a withering years-long bombing campaign known as Operation Rolling Thunder against Hanoi and other targets in the north.
Even less remembered today is that by the fall of 1968 Republican Richard Nixon was effectively able to run as the ‘peace candidate’ against Vice President Hubert Humphrey who was cast as the standard bearer of the Democratic Party’s failed eight-year war plank, with Alabama Governor George Wallace running as an American Independent, a gleeful political saboteur hell-bent on setting ablaze the convenient two-party arrangement and who managed to win five states, 46 electoral votes and the ballots of nearly 10 million Americans, becoming the last independent presidential candidate to win states outright against Democratic and Republican opponents. Nixon prevailed in ’68 with a commanding margin of more than 100 electoral votes but squeaked through to a popular vote victory by less than 100,000 votes—less than one vote per precinct throughout the nation.
While President Johnson had sought to nudge Humphrey over the top late in the game by announcing an end to Rolling Thunder at the close of October in 1968, there was no peace accord in the wings waiting to be had and Humphrey’s loss was surely rooted in the chaotic exasperation unfolding across the nation over a war in a distant land that was drawing America ever deeper into it with no discernable exit plan, save Nixon’s opaque vow of a ‘peace with honor.’
Americans decided that would have to do.
But instead of swiftly ending the war by wrapping it up in whatever slogan he needed, putting a bow on top and getting the hell out of Saigon, once in office Nixon proceeded to expand the conflict and ordered combat troops into neighboring Laos and Cambodia and by the spring of 1972 he renewed America’s aerial blitz with Operation Linebacker, a two-part affair that bookended the year and saw hundreds of B-52s rain hell once more upon the north. By 1973 Nixon took a deal in Paris that he likely could have had in 1969 but the result in any year since Vietnam’s initial partition in 1955 would have been the same: the utter collapse of South Vietnam in short order. America was fighting a loser in Vietnam from Day One.
And America continues to play a losing hand in Afghanistan today, but while the parallels with Vietnam are unmistakable, the lessons of that brutal quagmire in Southeast Asia have long disappeared into the fog of imperial hubris that now perpetually cloaks Washington.
“We’ve been on a long road together,” Pence declared last week in Afghanistan. “But President Trump made it clear earlier this year that we are with you. We are here to see this through.”
See this through to where? See this through to what end? See this through to when?
The fact is the Trump administration cannot any more articulate a viable answer to those fundamental questions than President Bush or President Obama could, because there is no viable answer. The idea that Americans will successfully inspire the Afghan people to embrace and build a Western-style democracy is as feasible as the Soviets’ genius plan to convince them to embrace the socialist paradise as bottled and sold from the back the Kremlin’s gypsy wagon, all while the tribal people looked down the barrel of a T-62 main battle tank and waved at the MIG-21s, MIG-23s and Su-17s flying overhead.
When the Soviets rolled into Afghanistan in 1979, they did it in the Russian way, the sort of no-knock entrance on a scale to simultaneously convey to the West they meant business while letting the Afghans know what to expect if they insisted on attempting to resist.
French journalist Gérard Chaliand, a veteran of covering guerilla wars, was in country and along Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan in early 1980 and reported as the Soviets launched a massive air campaign to preempt the mujahideen’s resupply from Pakistan’s radical tribal lands, unleashing hundreds of fighter-bombers that deployed high-explosive bombs and napalm while hundreds more strike helicopters offered close ground support for armored backed troops and mass artillery bombardments on the ground in an all-out effort to close the Pakistani supply funnels. Chaliand estimated that over two weeks in July 1980 alone the Soviets annihilated at least 60 Afghan villages south of Kabul. In case anyone didn’t get the picture, the Russians employed a ruthless campaign across what it considered to be vital Afghan regions, with one Swedish diplomat who was on the ground grimly cabling back to Stockholm that the Soviets had “shot at anything alive in six villages—people, hens, donkeys—and then they plundered what remained of value.”
In summary, the Soviets didn’t give a single shit let alone two about winning ‘hearts and minds’ during the opening fight in Afghanistan, they were only interested in destroying their enemy and once they felt that had been sufficiently accomplished they rolled out their own version of attempting to convince a tribal culture largely unchanged for centuries that new roads, hospitals and schools (for girls too!) would be their reward for submitting to Soviet demands for secular stability in the perpetually volatile land.
It took the Soviets a decade to come to grips with the fact that Afghanistan was a sinkhole they simply couldn’t prevail in, only one they could persevere in as they bled-out in perpetuity, so they pulled up stakes and split as the 1980s came to a close and just in time to arrive back home as Mother Russia’s own empire was facing disintegration.
And yet all of this grim historical precedent seemed utterly lost on Pence as he addressed American troops that were assembled for the vice president at Bagram last week. Speaking from a stage festooned with an inflatable Santa Claus and a Christmas tree, a thumbs-up flashing Pence passed along the President’s thanks and bragged that the Trump administration was finally taking the gloves off against the insurgents in Afghanistan. “We’ve dramatically increased American airstrikes and together with our Afghan partners we’ve put the Taliban on the defensive,” Pence said. “We’ve prevented them from launching a major campaign against a provincial capital for the first time in three years.”
Central to the administration’s plans to restore stability in a region that hasn’t seen any in centuries, Pence told the troops, was Washington putting the heat on Pakistan to end the resupply operations from its wild frontier that keep weapons and fresh jihadi recruits from flowing into the Taliban’s ranks. “For too long Pakistan has provided safe haven to the Taliban and many terrorist organizations, but those days are over,” Pence said. The New York Times did not report whether there was any suspicion that the vice president had smoked any of the opium that remains ubiquitous in Afghanistan, but judging from his fantastical assessment of Washington’s pull with Islamabad there seems at least a fair chance that Pence has indeed been chasing the dragon.
Back in actual reality outside of Pence’s whimsical dreamscape, one need only remember that in late 2001 the Bush administration bluntly warned Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and the country’s powerful intelligence apparatus, the ISI, that failure to get with the American program would result in Islamabad facing America’s military wrath. Whatever tentative efforts that were quickly made by Musharraf and his generals to placate Washington in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks, they never amounted to a decisive blow against the northern tribal lands that assured Pakistan’s central government operational control there.
And if Islamabad couldn’t or wouldn’t do it when lower Manhattan was still smoldering and under the threat of appearing on the target portfolios of American pilots, they sure as hell aren’t going to muster any enthusiasm or ability to do it now more than sixteen years down the road.
If the Soviets’ sustained bombing campaigns to end the insurgent’s supply routes failed in Afghanistan and the massive American air campaigns against the ‘Ho Chi Minh Trail’ (in reality a vast network of supply routes) failed in Vietnam, nothing short of deploying low-yield nuclear strikes along the Afghanistan and Pakistan border now will, save perhaps a pivot to an ‘all-in’ on the ground offensive with more than a million American combat troops that would deny the Taliban literally everything, everywhere.
This sort of mass offensive that was the hallmark of modern warfare through the end of World War II was indeed in the Pentagon’s playbook throughout Vietnam. Both Presidents Johnson and Nixon mused to senators whose advice they were seeking at various points in the conflict that if the Joint Chiefs had their way America would pour a couple of million men into the fight and invade North Vietnam. Both presidents realized that such a decisive escalation could quickly trigger not victory in Vietnam but rather the beginning of World War III as the Soviets and most assuredly China entered the fray.
And so both presidents passed on a ‘whatever it takes’ approach to the undeclared war in Vietnam, yet couldn’t seem to drag our troops out of the jungle war for the country’s national liberation without at least trying to save face first and thus they successively dithered amid the carnage and spent more American lives—and costing many more Vietnamese—without ever averting an outcome that was destined to be.
While the Pentagon in 2017 hasn’t asked President Trump to green light a million soldier all-out throw-down in Afghanistan, the brass did request the Commander in Chief pour another 50,000 troops into the country in an effort to stabilize the situation on the ground. Trump’s stomach likely turned at the prospect of announcing to the American people that he was ordering another ‘surge’ of troops in multi-division strength back into Afghanistan, even if he were to Tweet it out at 3 a.m. on a Saturday with: ‘Still not winning yet, more troops needed in Afghanipakiranistan. #MAGA #GoTeam!’
So instead, Trump took to a stage at Fort Myer in Virginia on August 21 and delivered an address to assembled troops, generals and cabinet secretaries that spelled out his intent stay the course in Afghanistan, albeit with ostensibly ‘new’ and invigorated commands that will ultimately hasten America’s arrival to the point of our departure from that land.
My what a difference a year makes.
From the not-so-distant mists of Campaign 2016 many Americans remember then candidate Trump saying something else altogether while out on the stump, when he declared America’s involvement in Afghanistan to be “a disaster” and vowed to finally reel American combat forces in from their endless deployments around the globe. Whether passionately for or rabidly against Trump, surely everyone remembers the arena crowds that roared “Build The Wall!” but may have a harder time recalling the tens of thousands of working class Americans that would greet Trump on the hustings to chant “Expand The War!” or “Make Afghanistan Great Again!”
That’s because Trump’s populist base of supporters—along with a lot of other Americans of the stripe that fueled Sen. Bernie Sanders rocket ride in the summer of 2016—are more interested in rebuilding Detroit than they are Kabul, even if it turned out that Trump really isn’t.
Far more than Nixon’s pivot on Vietnam from the campaign in 1968 to his presidency in 1969, Trump’s contortion on Afghanistan from his WrestleMania campaign in 2016 to his presidency in 2017 is all the more stunning of a policy reboot, or an abject betrayal, one that reflects his sinking into the neocon policy swamp rather than draining it. Nixon on the stump in 1968 signaled to the American people that he understood their growing alarm over a war that had plodded ever deeper into a morass and was prepared to get the country out of it, coy as he was as about the details. But Nixon’s apparent willingness to end the war in Vietnam—which he in fact belatedly did—was not a fundamental break from two decades of bipartisan American Cold War doctrine that rested on the premise of containing Communism.
But Trump’s about-face in Afghanistan is an embrace—even if perhaps a reluctant one—of the corporatist imperial agenda that has also proven to be a bipartisan affair as it has defined American foreign policy over the past quarter century since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Make no mistake about it, Trump’s continuation of the war in Afghanistan, no matter how many caveats and qualifiers and promises he salted throughout his address at Fort Myer in August, is simply more of the same. Or more specifically: the exact opposite of what he told the voters.
While Trump’s decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan didn’t register all that much on the applause meter among the Beltway establishment that is still frantic with the worry that he might have actually meant some of the key policy initiatives he campaigned on, from killing the free trade agreements that have devastated the American working class to ending the ongoing tide of mass immigration that is swamping the American construct, his 180° spin didn’t go entirely unappreciated in some neocon quarters.
John Hannah, a Senior Fellow at the Washington D.C. think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies and more relevantly the national security advisor to former Vice President Dick Cheney, took to the pages of The Washington Post-owned wonk bimonthly Foreign Policy in September with an essay insisting that “Trump’s Afghanistan strategy could actually work.” And Hannah didn’t waste any time in getting down to what he believes the worst-case scenario looks like in Afghanistan. Addressing “the cynics” that believe Trump is simply doing “just enough not to lose,” Hannah writes: “There’s still great value to U.S. national security in preventing the collapse of the Afghan state and the country’s restoration as a safe haven for terrorists determined to attack U.S. interests.”
It’s an opener that once again reveals the distorted nature of the neocon perspective of American national security. Hannah asserts that even expending the blood of American soldiers in a war that has spanned nearly two decades with no end in sight and with no more of an objective to do as he puts it “just enough not to lose,” it is worth it nonetheless because vital American national interests are on the line in that faraway land that saw the superior military prowess of the British in the 19th Century and the Soviets in the 20th Century absolutely devoured by the very same tribal warlords American troops are fighting in the 21st Century. Hannah posits that the alternative would be to allow Afghanistan to revert to a safe-haven for terrorists seeking to attack American interests.
And there’s the rub: “terrorists seeking to attack American interests.”
Not the American homeland, but rather its so-called interests—and when you hear ‘interests’ think Wall Street. It’s a subtle but notable turn of phrase. For Hannah knows that if the threshold of American military intervention anywhere in the world was to be solely predicated on a credible threat of an attack on the American nation—say North Korea—then the 800-plus permanent American military bases currently operated in more than 70 nations around the globe could be almost entirely eliminated and our troops brought home. But Hannah argues that had Trump actually honored his campaign vows in relation to Afghanistan he would be “pouring jet fuel on the fires of the global jihadist insurgency that is already burning out of control. Trump would be guaranteeing his legacy as the man who supercharged the threat exponentially, not just in Afghanistan but worldwide.”
Hannah’s rhetoric is the long discredited boilerplate pitch that emerged during the Vietnam War when the false assertion was made that if America didn’t hold the line in the former French colony—after the French abandoned it in bloody defeat—then a ‘Domino Effect’ would sweep across Southeast Asia and see its rapid subjugation into a Communist franchise operated from Moscow and Beijing.
Yet after nearly 60,000 American soldiers paid with their lives and more than 300,000 were wounded as a result of that fear fashioned into a lie, Vietnam’s fall failed to trigger the Communist land rush across the region. To the contrary, the Vietnamese were more nationalists than communists at heart and like Yugoslavia under Josip Tito they were intent on true independence, not becoming a farm team player for the Soviets or China, the latter of which they went to war with in 1979, just four years after America’s pullout.
Hannah spelled out three main arguments for why Americans should be looking at Afghanistan in 2018 through rose colored glasses (versus crimson), starting with the Mad Hatter assessment that Trump was putting an end to “artificial timelines.” Sixteen years of war, heartbreak and misery and suddenly the first glimmer of hope is the declaration that we shouldn’t advise the enemy when we’ll be leaving. “One of the most important of the changes was Trump’s declaration that U.S. strategy in Afghanistan would no longer be guided by artificial timelines, but by conditions on the ground,” Hannah writes. “You’d be hard pressed to find a military expert who doesn’t believe that telling the enemy when you are going to draw down your forces or stop fighting is nuts—completely self-defeating.”
No, what’s completely nuts is remaining locked in unwinnable combat for the better part of two decades because ‘military experts’ insist we should in lieu of acknowledging the obvious. What’s completely nuts is to pretend the enemy doesn’t grasp our situation on the ground in Afghanistan and is actually somehow strategically driven by whether we announce when we are going to leave—as Hannah blasted Obama for doing—or playing with a poker face as he salutes Trump for doing, with a shit hand at that. Hannah dresses this part of his argument up in the cloth of a different conflict, pretending that we’re engaged in another proxy war with our old best frenemy the Russians, and that by signaling our departure America will tilt the outcome of the war. He dutifully neglects to acknowledge the Taliban were there before America came calling and will be there after we leave, no matter what. They live there. They’re not going anywhere.
And in that respect, the Taliban and other jihadist groups want America to remain in Afghanistan. Every time the American warlord Sen. John McCain has stepped into the well of the Senate to rail for indefinite combat in Afghanistan it has been auditory Viagra to ears of the Taliban, and probably produces a head-shaking chuckle in the halls of the Kremlin as well.
Sixteen years since American troops went into Afghanistan and the neocons are still keeping a straight face as they toss around terms like ‘artificial timelines’ for a victory that will never come.
The second point that Dick Cheney’s waterboy Hannah makes—and it’s worth noting here that Cheney took no fewer than five deferments during the war in Vietnam to make sure he never had to serve in yet another war he was prepared to fight to the last someone else—is that under Trump’s new Afghan policy America was finally “waging war against the Taliban, again.” The president was unshackling our men and women of war to finally go to work on the Taliban, and Hannah offered an ‘Amen’ echo for what he claims is the lynchpin to prevailing in the conflict. And again, if that sounds like you’ve heard it before, you have. The longstanding counter-narrative that was endemic among certain circles both during and after Vietnam was that America somehow lost not because our troops couldn’t win, but because the suits in Washington; and Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon specifically, refused to let them win.
It’s a particularly obscene statement coming from Hannah, as he was in the Bush administration at Cheney’s side when the war was launched and more than 100,000 American soldiers went into combat in Afghanistan. As he gloats over Trump’s decision to betray his voters and hold on in Afghanistan today, ostensibly to “win it” this time around, he neglects to state why Bush & Co. failed to do so for nearly eight years. Hannah dumps on Obama for equivocating on the war during his two terms, but fails to explain why his own crew failed to win the war back when America was united in the desire to wreck justice upon the nation that launched a more devastating attack on our homeland since the War of 1812.
“The truth is that, incredible as it seems, ever since Obama announced the end of combat operations in 2014, the U.S. has been largely absent from Afghanistan’s most important battlefield,” Hannah writes. “The one against the Taliban.”
Taken at face value, actually Hannah acknowledges that Obama waged war for six years on the ground in Afghanistan during the eight years of his presidency. President Obama’s crime—and there should be no question that’s what Hannah and his ilk consider it—was to announce that America was out in 2014. If there was any crime at all it was that Obama decided to pass the bloody buck of Afghanistan on to the next president while falsely declaring the end of combat operations even as the war continued, declaring we were leaving when we weren’t and keeping thousands of American soldiers there even as he acted as if he had brought them home when he hadn’t.
Hannah caps off his argument in support of Trump’s decision to not only remain in Afghanistan but trudge ever deeper into it by stating the president is finally, at long last, going to get serious about “stopping Pakistan’s double game.” He calls it “a game changer.” Again, it begs the question of just what the hell were Bush and Cheney doing with Islamabad from late 2001 to early 2009? Sure Musharraf, his fellow generals and the ISI ostensibly went along with the American program back during the outbreak of the war, but only to the extent that kept them out of the targeting sites of B-52, B-1 and B-2 bombers and Tomahawk missiles launched from the Gulf of Oman or the Arabian Sea. Even during the height of the threat Washington laid on Islamabad the supply routes to the Taliban were never shut off completely.
But that was then, this is now, and Hannah believes that Trump is heading down the right road at this late date to confront Pakistan with a renewed demand they comply or else.
“It’s a threat that bedeviled both of Trump’s predecessors, neither of whom proved willing to bear the considerable risks of pursuing a sustained pressure campaign against a putative ally that is overflowing with radical Islamists and may have the world’s fastest growing stockpile of nuclear weapons,” Hannah writes. “Trump’s harsh rhetoric certainly suggested that he is prepared to take a much different and tougher course to compel a change in Pakistani behavior.”
In case anyone is unclear where Hannah and the cronies he speaks for in the neocon universe are hoping America heads, he offers this: “What remains in question is whether [Trump] is really willing to go where no president has gone before in actually lowering the boom on Islamabad.” It’s path he suggests starts with North Korean-grade sanctions and then escalates into attacks “inside Pakistan.”
It’s a sleight of semantical hand that really means attacking Pakistan. America’s leadership and its intellectual elite used to manage to speak plain English when addressing warfare, but no longer. Islamabad won’t convene an emergency war council to discuss the American attacks “inside Pakistan” as if they are some sort of detached action that doesn’t involve the rest of that sovereign nation, they will see such strikes for what they are; attacks on Pakistan, and respond accordingly. And it should not be lost on anyone that Pakistan is a nuclear state. Such an American move would have immediate and catastrophic consequences for the region, with India likely to be drawn into a mushroom cloud situation in days if not hours once the American strikes began.
And these three pseudo-arguments are at the root of why Hannah and his imperialist ilk are encouraged by Trump’s decision to remain in Afghanistan. Not that it’s a recipe for success, for they surely know better, but rather because it’s ultimately a soothing reassurance that Trump will not deliver on his vow to the American people.
For all of the recent comparisons of Trump to Nixon, almost all of them the wild delusions of febrile imaginations (for Trump possesses neither the sheer intellect nor the steeled statesmanship of Nixon, yet seemingly all of the paranoia without the alcohol to boot), none pleases the neocon establishment more than his head-spinning switcheroo on Afghanistan.
And in that regard there is yet another important parallel to that fateful year of 1968 to be found in the twilight of 2017, for in the year that saw LBJ bow out and Sen. Robert Kennedy get gunned down in that very same spring, the campuses were roiling with a dissent against the war in Vietnam that would only grow more violently pronounced until their bloody apex in the early 1970s.
As 2017 comes to a close, the campuses are again boiling over the man in the White House, but today it has nothing to do with hundreds of thousands of American troops perpetually overseas. Today there are no crowds in front of the Pentagon putting flowers in troops rifle barrels, there are no crowds in front of the White House chanting: “Hey! Hey! LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” Indeed, there are no mass mobilizations against the war that saw hundreds of thousands of Americans of every stripe assemble in the street to demand an end to it all.
Los Angeles journalist Ruben Salazar got his head blown off by a teargas canister fired into a bar on Whittier Boulevard in August 1970 during the mass mobilization of the Chicano Moratorium March to end the war in Vietnam, but you wouldn’t know it today. I was reminded of this fact a few weeks ago when I was in Boyle Heights with a colleague, a 20-something Chicana freshly graduated from my old Alma mater Cal Poly Pomona, and we found ourselves in Ruben F. Salazar Park and I noted “You know we are on sacred ground, right?”
“No, I didn’t,” she said. “How’s that?”
“Ruben Salazar? The Los Angeles Times reporter who was killed while covering the mass mobilization against the war?” I replied. “The Vietnam War. The marches turned to riots after Jackson State and Kent State. Getting warmer?”
“Oh come on! What the hell are they teaching anymore?”
“Not some Ruben whoever.”
“Now that guy I know.”
And in that moment I figured I might have been the last old white cat in a park in East LA named for Salazar talking to a lithe sharp Chicana who had no idea of the reporter I was talking about or the protests over the war he was killed covering. And that’s a tragedy in its own right.
Yet that was but a snapshot of the larger picture today, where a generation has emerged with their heads buried in their iPhones if not their asses, taking in a dizzying stream of information and yet somehow oblivious of the world that’s actually unfolding around them. American war hero Charles Rangel, a Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient who put in some serious work for America in the bloody squalor of Korea in 1950 before becoming a career Democratic congressman in New York, often spoke in favor of reinstating the draft, even in so-called peace time. And he did so with a keen eye for the obvious: when everyone’s kid has skin in the game, the desire to double down or even go in to begin with becomes a lot more judicious.
But Charlie Rangel’s war and the ideas he brought home from it have long since faded.
And as 2018 dawns the sociopolitical landscape in America is far different than it was during our nation’s last horrifically long lost war. The Left only occasionally mobilizes in numbers these days in opposition to the man in the White House, assembling dutifully with their pink pussy hats to rage about the outrage they consider Trump to be, but not a word to be whispered about our soldiers overseas or the fact that Madame Clinton would have kept them there too.
In fact, if they took a close look at the photo taken by Mandel Ngan in The New York Times published a week ago they would see a sea of mostly white faces ordered to assemble in front of Vice President Pence at the Bagram airbase to hear his Christmas good news, and in that regard their professors may well advise them in their now well-scripted revolutionary cant that America should indeed leave Afghanistan, but also leave our soldiers behind too, what with the majority of them being working class Anglo cis-hetero normative whatevers that are ‘part of the problem’ and not the solution in America today.
So unlike presidents LBJ and Nixon, Trump has no real heat from the street on him from either side to bring our men and women under arms back home. The Left is fractured and distracted and the Right’s corporate leadership is onboard for more while Trump’s base is in a denial bordering on a Stockholm syndrome stupor.
And our troops in Afghanistan still stand a post for nothing.
That’s the horrifying truth of it.
They weren’t home for Christmas in 2017 and they won’t be home for Christmas in 2018 either.
And judging by the way things are going, they may never come home at all.